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Context of 'December 19, 1986: Congress Announces Iran-Contra Investigative Committee; Democrats Are Determined to Avoid Impeaching Reagan'

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Fawn Hall, the secretary to National Security Council officer Oliver North, asks North if she can borrow money from him. North gives her $60 in traveler’s checks drawn on a Central American bank, and says, as Hall will later testify to Congress (see December 19, 1986): “Make sure you return—pay back the money. It is not mine.” The money is part of the illegal funds raised by North and others for the Nicaraguan Contras. (United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 12/13/2007)

Fawn Hall and her attorney, Plato Cacheris, during her June 1987 testimony before the House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee.Fawn Hall and her attorney, Plato Cacheris, during her June 1987 testimony before the House-Senate Iran-Contra investigative committee. [Source: Mark Leightman / Bettman / Corbis]National Security Council (NSC) officer Oliver North, the prime coordinator of the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the Reagan administration, leads a coordinated effort to alter, remove, and destroy critical documents that could prove criminal intent in the burgeoning Iran-Contra investigation (see November 21-25, 1986). The enormity of the destruction of government records earns the incident the sobriquet “Ollie’s shredding party.” A key figure in the document shredding is North’s secretary, Fawn Hall. Hall, whose mother Wilma was the secretary for North’s former NSC boss, Robert McFarlane, will reluctantly become one of the first, and most damning, witnesses for Lawrence Walsh’s independent investigation of the Iran-Contra affair (see December 19, 1986). Hall has been, in the words of Walsh’s prosecutors, “generally aware” of North’s involvement in both providing illegal funds to the Contras and in illegally selling arms to Iran, maintaining his records and typing his memoranda and letters. Though she knows of the illegal activities, because she did not participate in meetings or telephone conversations with other key figures in the affair, she will later be able to testify, “I did not know many of the details relevant to the Iran and Contra initiatives.” Hall’s participation in North’s “shredding party” is her first direct participation in any criminal activities surrounding the Iran-Contra affair. After North learns that the Department of Justice is opening an inquiry into the sale of arms to Iran, North secures a number of documents from NSC files showing that he had violated the Boland Amendment (see October 10, 1984) by aiding the Contras. North marks the documents with handwritten revisions, changing the text to make it seem as if North had not violated the law. He then gives the documents to Hall, asking her to retype them to include his corrections and then replace them in the files. Hall does so, but does not finish the alterations before North calls her in to help him shred documents, including notes and phone records. Hall later estimates that she and North shredded documents in piles of 12-18 pages for close to an hour, shredding in all a stack of documents almost two feet high. The shredding and alterations continue through November 23. She will later testify that she had never shredded such a large quantity of documents. (Reeves 2005, pp. 367; United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit 12/13/2007)

Congress announces the creation of a special counsel to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. Lawrence Walsh is named the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation. (New York Times 11/19/1987) Walsh, a retired federal judge, later says that he is worried from the outset about the potential for what he calls a “carnival atmosphere” surrounding the hearings. In creating the special counsel and the concurrent Congressional investigation (see January 6-7, 1987), Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) want to head off any possibility of impeachment. “That is the last thing I wanted to do,” Wright later recalls. “Ronald Reagan had only two years left in his [second and final] term. I was not going to allow a procedure that would lead to his impeachment in his final year in office.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 67-68)

Warren Rudman and Daniel Inouye.Warren Rudman and Daniel Inouye. [Source: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images]Both the House and Senate name special committees to investigate the Iran-Contra affair. (New York Times 11/19/1987)
Avoiding Impeachment - The two investigations will quickly merge into one joint, unwieldy committee. Neither Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) nor Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-WV) have any intention of allowing the investigations to become impeachment hearings against President Reagan (see December 19, 1986). They decide to combine the House and Senate investigations in the hopes that the investigation will move more quickly and limit the damage to the presidency. They envision a bipartisan committee made up of wise, sober lawmakers able to prevent the investigation from becoming a witch hunt. Wright will remember telling the Republican minority leadership, “You appoint and we appoint and we can maintain some control.”
Choosing Chairmen, Members - Byrd chooses Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), a decorated World War II veteran who had served on the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 7, 1973) and the Senate Intelligence Committee. In turn, Inouye names Warren Rudman (R-NH), a former federal prosecutor, as his vice chairman, promising to share all the powers and responsibilities of the chairmanship with him. According to authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein, Rudman “would overshadow” the self-effacing Inouye. For the House side, Wright names conservative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) to chair that portion of the committee. Both Hamilton and Inouye have a deep conviction that to accomplish anything of lasting import, decisions must be arrived at in a bipartisan fashion. Wright names several powerful Democratic committee chairmen to the House committee; their responsibilities as committee chairmen will interfere with their ability to devote the proper time and effort to the investigation. House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IN) chooses his members with a very different agenda in mind. Michel, himself a relatively moderate Republican, chooses Dick Cheney (R-WY) as the ranking member of the House investigation. Cheney is well-informed about intelligence and foreign affairs, and, in Dubose and Bernstein’s words, “ruthlessly partisan.” In addition, Cheney will function as the White House “mole” on the committee, alerting White House officials as to the thrust and direction of the investigation and allowing them time to prepare accordingly. Michel salts the House committee with right-wing ideologues, including Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Few of Michel’s House committee members have any intention of pursuing the facts behind Iran-Contra; instead, they are bent on undermining the Democrats on the committee and ensuring that the committee achieves few, if any, of its goals.
Loss of Leverage - From the outset, Wright and Byrd’s opposition to any consideration of presidential impeachment, no matter what evidence is unearthed, loses them their biggest advantage in the proceedings. Not only will committee Republicans feel more confident in pulling the investigation away from sensitive and potentially embarrassing matters, the committee will ignore important evidence of Reagan’s own involvement in the Iran-Contra decision-making process, including recordings of telephone conversations showing Reagan discussing financing the Contras with foreign leaders. Hamilton in particular will be an easy mark for the ideologues in the Republican group of committee members; his biggest worry is whether Reagan “would be able to govern” after the investigation, and his relentless bipartisanship makes him easy for the committee Republicans to manipulate and sway. As for the Republicans, even fellow GOP committee member Rudman will become disgusted with their naked partisanship and their refusal to pursue the facts. “It was obvious that Dick Cheney and others were more interested in protecting the president than in finding out what had happened,” Rudman will later recall. Dubose and Bernstein add that Cheney has another agenda as well: preserving the powers of the presidency against Congressional encroachment.
Cheney's Influence - Cheney has always succeeded in lulling his opposition with his unruffled demeanor. He is able to do the same thing on the investigative committee. “We totally misread the guy,” a Democratic staffer later recalls. “We thought he was more philosophical than political.” (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 68-69)

The Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigation begin meetings to discuss the logistics of the upcoming public hearings (see May 5, 1987). Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D-TX) later recalls that House committee chairman “Lee Hamilton and I bent over backwards to be fair to the Republicans.” Many of the committee Republicans are not predisposed to return the favor. Moderate Republican Warren Rudman (R-NH), the co-chairman of the Senate committee, recalls that deep divides were forming between the committee’s moderate Republicans and the more hardline Republicans led by Dick Cheney (R-WY). “The meetings were very, very intensive,” Rudman will recall. Cheney helps put together the Republican committee members’ staff, and includes a number of hardline Reagan loyalists: the Justice Department’s Bruce Fein; the former assistant general counsel to the CIA, David Addington; and others. Notably, it is during the Iran-Contra hearings where Cheney and Addington form their lasting professional association.
Artificial Deadline - The first battle is over the length of the hearings. Cheney’s hardliners want the hearings over with quickly—“like tomorrow,” one former staffer recalls. Hamilton will recall: “Did I know Dick wanted to shorten it? Yes, I knew that.” Committee Democrats, fearful of extending the proceedings into the 1988 presidential campaign and thusly being perceived as overly partisan, agree to an artificial ten-month deadline to complete the investigation and issue a final report. Authors Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein later write that the deadline is “an invitation to the administration to stall while simultaneously burying the committee under mountains of useless information.” When, in the fall of 1987, the committee receives large amounts of new information, such as White House backup computer files, Cheney’s hardliners will succeed in insisting that the committee adhere to the deadline.
Jousting with the Special Prosecutor - The committee also has trouble co-existing with the special prosecutor’s concurrent investigation (see December 19, 1986). The special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, wants a long, intensive investigation culminating in a round of prosecutions. The committee worries that in light of Walsh’s investigation, key witnesses like Oliver North and John Poindexter would refuse to testify before the committee, and instead plead the Fifth Amendment. Rudman and committee counsel Arthur Liman want Walsh to quickly prosecute North for obstruction of justice based on North’s “shredding party” (see November 21-25, 1986). Rudman believes that he can get his Republican colleagues to agree to defer their investigation until after North’s trial. But Walsh declines. Rudman later says: “Walsh might have been more successful if he had followed our suggestion.… But he had this grand scheme of conspiracy.” As such, the committee has a difficult choice: abort the investigation or grant North immunity from prosecution so he can testify. Cheney and his hardliners, and even some Democrats, favor not having North testify in deference to his upcoming prosecution. “People were all over the place on that one,” Rudman will recall. Hamilton is the strongest proponent of immunity for North. “He believed that North had information no one else had,” a staffer will recall. Hamilton and the moderate Republicans are more interested in finding the details of the Iran-Contra affair rather than preparing for criminal prosecutions. The committee eventually compromises, and defers the testimony of North and Poindexter until the end of the investigation. Another committee staffer later recalls, “Hamilton was so fair-minded and balanced that in order to get agreements, he gave ground in areas where he shouldn’t have.”
North Deal 'Dooms' Investigation - Dubose and Bernstein later write, “The deal the committee struck with North’s canny lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, doomed Walsh’s investigation and the hearings.” The committee offers North “use immunity,” a guarantee that his testimony cannot be used against him in future prosecutions. The committee also agrees, unwisely, to a series of further caveats: they will not depose North prior to his testimony, his testimony will be strictly limited in duration, the committee will not recall North for further testimony, and he will not have to produce documents to be used in his testimony until just days before his appearance. (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 70-72, 77)

Interviewed by investigators for Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986), Defense Department official Lieutenant General John Moellering testifies to his participation in Oliver North’s Restricted Interagency Group (RIG) meetings. In several RIG meetings, North asserted his control over the Nicaraguan Contra activities, discussed the private funding of the Contras, and demanded line-by-line approval of each specific activity (see July 1986 and After). Though he was present for at least one of those meetings, Moellering testifies that he has no recollection of any such behaviors or assertions from North. The later discovery of notes taken during Moellering’s “debriefing” for one such meeting by Moellering’s aide, Colonel Stephen Croker, will prove that Moellering either suffers from systemic memory loss or is lying. (Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters: Chapter 25: United States v. Elliott Abrams: November 1986 8/4/1993) It is not until RIG member Alan Fiers, a former CIA official, testifies in 1991 about North’s behaviors that verification of North’s discussion of such specifics about Contra activities and funding will be made public (see July 17, 1991).

Former CIA agent Alan Fiers.Former CIA agent Alan Fiers. [Source: Terry Ashe / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images]The former head of the CIA’s Central America task force, Alan Fiers, pleads guilty to two counts of lying to Congress. Fiers has admitted to lying about when high-ranking agency officials first learned of the illegal diversion of US funds to the Nicaraguan Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986). Fiers now says that when he learned of the diversions in the summer of 1986, he informed his superior, then-Deputy Director for Operations Clair George, who ordered him to lie about his knowledge (see Summer 1986). In return for his guilty pleas to two misdemeanor counts instead of far harsher felony charges, Fiers is cooperating with the Iran-Contra investigation headed by Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986). Time reports: “The Iran-Contra affair has been characterized by US officials as a rogue operation managed by overzealous members of the National Security Council. But if Fiers is correct, top-ranking CIA officials not only knew about the operation and did nothing to stop it; they also participated in an illegal cover-up.… Suddenly a number of unanswered questions assume a new urgency. Just what did Ronald Reagan—and George Bush—know? And when did they know it?” (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)

The New York Times reports that Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986) is in possession of tapes and transcripts documenting hundreds of hours of telephone conversations between CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and CIA agents in Central America. The time period of the taped conversations corresponds to the period in which NSC officer Oliver North, retired Air Force General Richard Secord, and arms dealer Albert Hakim were running their secret arms pipeline informally known as either “Airlift Project” or “The Enterprise” (see November 19, 1985 and February 2, 1987). Former Deputy Director for Operations Clair George (see Summer 1986) installed the taping system in the early- to mid-1980s. The contents of the conversations are not known, though it is known that Walsh is using the tapes to force accurate testimony from North and others either standing trial or serving as witnesses in Iran-Contra prosecutions (see March 16, 1988). (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)

According to investigators working with Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (see December 19, 1986), the Iran-Contra affair is closely linked to the burgeoning scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI—see Shortly After September 1, 1976, 1978-1982, 1981-1991, 1981-1983, 1984-1986, January 1985, December 12, 1985, February 1988-December 1992, March 1991-December 1992, and July 5, 1991.) Former government officials add that the CIA kept secret funds hidden in BCCI accounts, and used the monies to fund covert operations in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Investigators confirm that a US defense intelligence organization used BCCI to maintain a secret “slush fund” for financing covert operations. And, months before National Security Council (NSC) official Oliver North set up his network for diverting funds to the Contras (see December 6, 1985 and April 4, 1986), the NSC used BCCI to divert funds to the Contras (see Early 1986). (Lacayo, Beaty, and van Voorst 7/22/1991)

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